The SEC's Belief That Alabama Lost Too Much For a Repeat Doesn't Add Up

Douglas WebbCorrespondent IAugust 17, 2009

TUSCALOOSA, AL - NOVEMBER 29:  Defensive back Justin Woodall #27 of the Alabama Crimson Tide celebrates after making a stop in the fourth quarter against the Auburn Tigers at Bryant-Denny Stadium on November 29, 2008 in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. Alabama defeated Auburn 36-0.  (Photo by Doug Benc/Getty Images)

1+1= 3

Or at least to hear rival fans tell things it does.

The University of Alabama's players have heard it all offseason: how the SEC was weak last year, how none of the teams they beat had quality starting quarterbacks, how the Tide once again suffered a let down at the end of the season.

Nevermind of course that the SEC produced the National Champion, one of those quarterbacks was the first pick in the NFL draft, and the Tide lost to two top 10 teams to end the year.

Fans of rival teams claim there is no way Alabama can defend their SEC West title with another dominating season within the conference. They say the Tide can't replace losses on the line of scrimmage, at quarterback, or at tailback with enough quality to win in the SEC.

They couldn't be more wrong.

There is every indication that this Alabama team will be better than the one Tide fans cheered for last season. Saban and his staff seem quietly confident that the Tide is ahead of schedule.

Tide players have worked hard in the offseason training program. The upperclassmen have done a solid job of taking the newcomers under their wing during summer workouts.

Sure there are questions that are yet to be answered. The team still needs to find a right guard. A complement to Julio Jones needs to be found. The coaches don't yet seem to feel comfortable with who they have as a backup quarterback.

All those things are progressing and should be settled by the end of next week. At that point the Tide will likely turn their focus to the Hokies. Give Saban and his staff two weeks to focus on an opponent and you have to like their chances to succeed, despite what happened in the Sugar Bowl.

Alabama has plenty of options at tailback. Glen Coffee was a great inside runner who did a fantastic job of blocking in the backfield. Mark Ingram is ready to step in and replace Coffee. Ingram proved during his rookie season that he was more than tough enough between the tackles rushing for 728 yards in a back up role.

He also proved he had a nose for the end zone, scoring 12 touchdowns on the season.

Roy Upchurch can do it all. He's an excellent rusher and receiver who does a great job of picking up the blitz on passing downs. If he can stay healthy the entire season, he should be part of a regular rotation with Ingram in the backfield. His receiving skills out of the backfield, particularly on third down, provide and added dimension to the Tide's offense.

There is no questioning newcomer Trent Richardsons abilities when it comes to running the football. How much time he spends on the field will likely come down to how well he handles his blocking responsibilities. Over time though there is no doubt he's the type back who can carry a heavy work load for the Tide.

Terry Grant has worked hard at becoming a capable inside runner. He turned the heads of members of the coaching staff this past spring with the progress he had made in that area. Like Upchurch he's a capable receiver out of the backfield. He's hard to bring down once he gets in open space.

That is four very capable backs with at least three likely to share carries once the season starts. Saban likes to be able to keep a fresh set of legs in the game. He's also shown a tendency in the past to specialize them in certain situations. Whether on the goal line, in short yardage situations, or as a third-down back, if they have a niche, Saban will find it.

Not only does this Alabama team have more options in the passing game this year than last, the returning players have another year in the system. Provided quarterback Greg McElroy is given the time from his new offensive line, he should have plenty of open targets to hit.

Marquis Maze, Mike McCoy, Darius Hanks, and Earl Alexander join Playboy All-American Julio Jones in returning for another season in a Tide passing attack that had very mixed reviews last season. While Jones caught everyone's eye, and deservedly so, the remaining group struggled to haul in many receptions.

Joining them this fall is a talented group of freshman receivers. Michael Bowman, Kevin Norwood, Kenny Bell, and Kendell Kelly. They have got to prove first that they have learned the offensive schemes. They will then need to capitalize on any chance they get to play with the first team by making plays.

That the offensive line is probably the teams biggest question headed into the season is no secret. The Tide seems settled on four spots with right guard being the one question left remaining. Barrett Jones and Alfred McCullough among others, are battling for the final open spot on the line of scrimmage.

The other spots on the line will likely be manned by Drew Davis at right tackle, William Vlachos at center, Mike Johnson at left guard, and James Carpenter at left tackle.

They should be adept at opening holes for the running game which is a good thing for a run first team. How good they will be at protecting the quarterback remains to be seen. It would be safe to assume Alabama's offensive coaches will use a lot of short routes mixed with play action early on in the season.

Rivals are quick to point to the Tide's struggles last year when Andre Smith was missing either earlier in the year with injury or later in the year following his suspension. If they are depending on seeing that same struggling group take the field this fall, they are likely in for a surprise.

Coach Joe Penfry has shown himself plenty adept enough at teaching offensive lineman both at the college level and in the NFL. He's a great teacher who will have this line ready to go the first time they line up over the ball versus Virginia Tech.

This will likely be as balanced a line as the Tide has had in some time. Opposing teams won' be able to key on one side on running downs as they have in recent years.

The Tide defensively has few questions, the main one among them is generating more of a pass rush. New Linebackers coach Sal Sunseri has brought fresh input into that area along with being the strongest linebackers coach retained by Saban during his time at the Capstone.

With the depth and talent Sunseri has to work with at the linebacker position Alabama should have little problem stuffing the run. The Tides front three are adept at stuffing the run and feeding running backs to Sunseri's linebackers.

Improved pass rushing from the "Jack" position would go a long way towards cutting down the amount of time Alabama's secondary has to spend in coverage.

Alabama's line is anchored by monster nose tackle Terrence Cody. Cody has worked hard to get in better shape this season. His hope is to be able to be an every down player. Last season Cody would give way to teammate Josh Chapman on third downs in an effort to generate more of a pass rush.

Cody will team with Chapman and ends Marcel Darius, Lorenzo Washington, Luther Davis, and Brandon Deaderick to give the Tide it's strongest defensive line in a decade.

Those that want to believe Alabama's record last year was a fluke are deluding themselves. No, they may not go 12-0 during the regular season this year. Barring drastic injuries or highly unusual bad luck though the Tide should win the SEC West. That would earn them a return trip to Atlanta and the SEC Championship game.

As long as Saban and his staff continue to recruit at their current level you can continue to expect the Tide to finish at or near the top of the conference year in and year out. They will also be a factor in who wins the National title more often than not.

The talent is there, the coaching is there, and so is the support from the University and it's fans.

You do the math.


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